A jaded cop in Singapore investigates the disappearance of a Chinese construction worker in Yeo Siew Hua’s predictable noir “A Land Imagined.” Set in the city’s underbelly and shot almost entirely at night, the film privileges style over coherence, indulging in pointless time shifts and giving short shrift to too many characters. Any discussion of the quasi-slave-like situation for most of the country’s external laborers is important, and Yeo adds some good lines about how the city-state is literally built from foreign soil, yet “Land” will feel overly familiar to those looking for more than well-intentioned musings on the horrendous treatment of guest workers. Locarno’s jury clearly thought otherwise by giving it their top prize, but it’s hard to imagine the movie going beyond the usual indie festival destinations.
Much of Singapore’s industrial coastline is made from reclaimed land, covered with rigs and looking like some dystopian monstrosity — a far cry from the glitz and glamour depicted in “Crazy Rich Asians.” This uninviting region is the working environment of Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), who’s been missing for one week. Detective Lok (Peter Yu) is sent to investigate, though his lassitude implies a lack of interest (on his part) and a desire (on the part of the writer-director) to emulate scores of world-weary cops in countless films noirs. The investigation becomes more involved when Wang’s Bengali co-worker Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) also can’t be found.
From here, Yeo jumps back to an industrial accident when Wang injured his arm and was put on driving duty — at a fraction of his already low pay. Nervous about his precarious situation and unable to sleep, Wang spends an increasing amount of his nights at an internet café, cyber-chatting with a mysterious gamer (the film’s most under-developed thread) and largely resisting the bored flirtations of the establishment’s tough supervisor Mindy (Luna Kwok). His one friend is Ajit, an optimistic laborer who owes the company money and goes missing just after Wang tries to steal his friend’s passport from the company locker, where all the workers’ passports are kept under lock and key.
Lurid lighting, destabilizing locations, and a jazzy score form the framework on which Yeo hangs his hole-riddled script, suggesting that he’d have been more comfortable making a documentary essay on Singapore’s land reclamation rather than a fiction feature using noir tropes as a means of making a statement. Wang is the most fully realized character, his edgy yet exhausted aura acting as the film’s sympathetic heart, but Lok is merely a bleary-eyed investigator too obviously meant to mirror the viewers growing realization that the country’s land is filled in by abused foreign laborers. Mindy is even more cartoonish, a cynical vixen whose motivations are as murky as the blackened waters lapping around the construction site.
A more coherent editing strategy could have made the plot more engaging, though even then, the mysterious cyber-chatter would still require more explanation. Visuals are most interesting at the start, when a red sky offsets the industrial equipment lining the growing shoreline. It’s unclear if there’s some meaning apart from the obvious one that would explain frequent shots of the video game many internet patrons are playing, featuring an invented ancient Arab city under attack. Yet what that’s doing in a movie about Singapore is never explained.